Should the VVD, CDA and PVV cabinet become reality, not only should the public broadcasting companies beware but Dutch culture itself will come under threat. In the opinion of media historian Huub Wijfjes: ‘Hilversum sees stormy weather in the offing if the right wing manages to put together a cabinet. Both VVD and PVV are focusing on the costs of public broadcasting, yet failing to consider the immaterial benefits of such services, which are quite large.’
An important aim of public broadcasting is to serve the wider public by making difficult information accessible, such as the news and its background. Other areas are covered by cultural and educational programmes and Dutch drama and light entertainment is also broadcast. This is funded in part by EUR 780 million in taxes and is meant for everyone in society. Wijfjes: ‘The Dutch public broadcasting companies give taxpayers their full money’s worth. The news programmes and information provision broadcasted are top level and only cost a few euros an hour. The commercial channels could never furnish such quality, as they don’t make the necessary funds available. People will undoubtedly only miss public broadcasting once it’s gone but then it will be too late to save Dutch culture from suffering.’ Wijfjes is disappointed that neither government nor society fully appreciates that Dutch public broadcasting is doing very well by international standards. The diversity in society is well reflected in its programming.
Since the day it came into being, about eighty years ago, people have been against the whole idea of public broadcasting. And according to Wijfjes, opponents have been particularly vociferous of late. The VVD has never been a supporter of a strong public broadcasting system since it prefers free market forces. The section in the PVV party programme on the media also signals a dire future for public broadcasting. Wijfjes: ‘The PVV considers public broadcasting to be a left-wing stronghold, despite research proving the opposite. As soon as you really get into the details, they retire from the field. The PVV hasn’t a clue what they really want, so they go on and on about the salaries paid to top presenters and broadcasting company management. And they keep calling for all public radio broadcasting to be abolished, which is a purely populist move.’ The CDA is the only one of the three parties which has always supported public broadcasting. Wijfjes expects that the CDA will counter the market-driven thinking of the VVD and PVV.
Wijfjes considers children’s programmes to be an important part of public broadcasting. If programming for children were to be relegated to the commercial channels, probably the only thing to be broadcast would be American cartoons. The programmes public broadcasting companies put on for their youthful public are ‘the jewel in the Dutch crown’, according to Wijfjes. The Dutch children’s news, for instance, has been around for twenty-eight years and was ground-breaking and way ahead of the times in the Netherlands. Dutch programming for children was later copied abroad. Wijfjes: ‘Dutch children’s programmes are high quality. Internationally speaking, they’re a strong export product.’ The commercial stations would never venture to broadcast such programmes as the ‘Jeugdjournaal’(children’s news), ‘Villa Achterwerk’ or ‘Klokhuis’, since they can earn more with light entertainment. ‘Apparently, people don’t realize that high-quality children’s programmes are set to disappear if the intended cutbacks are made.’
According to Wijfjes, high-quality programming could be ensured if commercial stations also qualified for government funding. Perhaps commercial stations would rise to the challenge if they could apply for grants from STIFO (Stimuleringsfonds voor Culturele Omroepproducties), the Dutch Cultural Broadcasting Promotion Fund. Wijfjes: ‘STIFO now only considers public broadcasting companies’ applications for funding. However, I think the commercial stations should be given a chance as well.’ Wijfjes feels that commercial stations are undoubtedly capable of producing educational and cultural programmes, yet fail to do so now because the returns are too low. ‘If the Fund were to change its conditions and welcome applications from commercial broadcasters, competition would increase which would only benefit the quality of programming.’
People feel that it’s paternalistic that public broadcasting holds ethical standards in such high regard. Wijfjes, however, feels it’s good that certain standards are kept and woven into programmes. ‘Sometimes you need to protect people from themselves and from society. Many of the commercial stations fail to. Call me old-fashioned, but I think it’s reprehensible that commercial stations rake in money broadcasting people’s misery and problems.’
Huub Wijfjes (1956) is professor by special appointment of the History of Radio and Television at the University of Amsterdam. He is also lecturer and researcher at the University of Groningen, working for the Master’s degree programme in Journalism. Wijfjes was awarded a PhD in 1988 for his thesis on radio censorship in the interbellum. He has also conducted large-scale research projects on the history of Dutch journalism and on the VARA public broadcasting company.He publishes regularly as a media historian on politics, history, media history and journalism and voices his opinion on developments in the media wherever possible.
More information: Huub Wijfjes
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